Leaving home to find it

I flew home last week, or what I thought was home. As soon as I stepped out of the airport everything appeared as if through a fog, vaguely familiar but somehow different, even foreign. After having spent the past couple of years complaining about, lashing out against and ultimately adjusting to life here in Korea, I found that I no longer felt at home in the city I was born and raised in.

For one thing, drivers in San Francisco have this strange tendency to stop for pedestrians. My first day back, brain addled by sleep deprivation and hours of continuous on-flight movies, I stood frozen when cars stopped at the crosswalk to let me pass. In Seoul there’s no question but that you get the hell out of the way when vehicles approach. I didn’t know what to do, unsure of whether the drivers would gun it as soon as I stepped off the curb.

I think I read somewhere once that San Franciscans were ranked some of the sloppiest dressers among residents of major urban areas. Once upon a time it never would have occurred to me to pay attention to how folks were dressed, but coming from uber-trendy Seoul it’s one of the first things I noticed. People in SF looked like there were walking around in their pajamas.

And the faces. All kinds, all ethnicities. So unlike the never-ending sameness of Korea, that maddening, comforting sense of living in a village/nation where everyone is a variation of the same theme. SF felt fragmented, everyone a stranger who neither shared the same tongue, ate the same food… only occupying the same space. In Korea I am a minority; in SF, everyone is.

That sense of fragmentation seemed to permeate the very air passing through the city, an air straight off the Pacific so clear and crisp like brittle glass that would shatter at the slightest touch. My neighbors of 30 plus years, Korean immigrants who worked their way from the bottom up to secure their piece of the American pie, lost everything in the recent finanical debacle. The father, who barely speaks English, just shook his head in disgust when he told me. “30 years, stupid stupid….” My wife urged them to return to Korea.

When I landed at Incheon International I breathed a sigh of relief at the familiarity around me. I left a place that I’ve always thought of as home, a place where traditions crumble and reform in a continual act of self-creation. I’m not sure now whether it’s home or not, but I wonder whether in the end that’s what it means to be a San Franciscan. Allowing the walls of certainty to come crashing down so that you can then rebuild them, piece by piece.

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Obowma-san

Last week I headed up to the 9th floor of my office building to take care of some routine duties. The floor is filled with young interns, dressed in the tattered jeans and flannel shirts that are the trend during Korea’s wintry weather. Turning a corner I bumped into one of them, a young man who looked to be barely in his twenties. He bowed to me, and it was so abrupt and unexpected that I didn’t return it.

I worried at first, after my mind had a chance to register what had just transpired, that perhaps I had come across as rude. As a foreigner it’s something I’ve become at times acutely conscious of here, not wanting to unknowingly give offense. Then – and this surprised me – I experienced a sense of pride. My chest puffed out a bit and my head became inflated by the thought that this person had acknowledged me as a superior. As superior.

That felt good. But frankly I doubt its how Japan’s Emperor Akihito took Obama’s bow.

Obowma-san

Conservatives across the US are deriding the president for sending the message that America now “willingly prostrates itself before the rest of the world.” They say Obama seeks to “transform the United States,” to “teach Americans to bow before monarchs and tyrants.”

My sense is that the bow was in fact not intended for Akihito himself but rather to win over the Japanese public, which has grown increasingly anti-American in recent years. And while the outcome of Obama’s visit to Tokyo may not have been as frutiful as he would have liked, that simple gesture likely went some way in assuaging local sentiment. It was an aggressive, not a passive, move.

I studied judo for about five years when I was in my teens. The first thing you do before beginning a match is bow to your opponent. It doesn’t mean you’re going to roll over and let him throw you around like a rag doll. You bow and then go at him, with of course the utmost of respect as an opponent, an enemy and even perhaps a teacher. It’s an attitude America would do well to embrace.

Which brings me to China. Some two centuries ago a British admiral traveled to the court of the Qianlong Emperor, the Son of Heaven, in order to convince him to loosen trade restrictions that were then bleeding England dry. There were some issues of protocol to be worked out before the meeting, however, including making sure that Adm. Macartney banged his head on the floor before the emperor as a sign of England’s submission to the greatness of the Middle Kingdom. The proud Englishman of course refused.

I remember the event because of something I heard during a college lecture. According to an employee of the East India Company and member of the mission who recorded the journey, Macartney despite his obstinance apparently tripped and banged his head while approaching the emperor, who then graciously accepted the Englishman’s submission, though he refused his demands.

The failure of the mission has been described by scholars as a missed opportunity for China to accomodate the West, a political stumble by Beijing – not Macartney – that would lead to nearly two centuries of chaos and instability that China is now looking to put behind istelf. Now it’s America that is indebted to Beijing.

Obama has called hismelf America’s first “Pacific President,” and if his recent trip through Asia demonstrates anything, it’s that he’s learned to speak Asia’s language. Besides the bow, he’s drawn fire for backing off on pressing China over its human rights situation, something his critics have described in words akin to the president knocking his head on the floor before Beijing. Or bowing low.

In truth, as this piece in the Asia Times points out, Obama’s outward show of “deference” is no mere sign of weakness, it is not fueled by an apoligist approach to foreign relations. It is a genuine display of respect that allows the wheels of diplomacy to turn all the more smoothly and reflects a measure of confidence that America does not diminish itself simply by acknowledging its opponents.

In David Halberstam’s last book on the Korean War, he quotes a converstaion that Mao Zedong is said to have had with Zhou Enlai regarding the commander of U.S. forces, Gen. MAcArthur.

“What kind of man is he,” Mao asks. “Arrogant,” comes the reply, at which point Mao smiles and says, “Good, an arrogant man is easy to defeat.” That war still hasn’t ended.

Made in China

Went to the local E-mart a few nights ago. Standing around with my son while my wife finished the shopping we both got sucked into staring at a nearby flat-panel TV screen showing Madagascar 2. “Wow, look at that quality, and the price… but what the hell is a Haier?” The sales woman told us it was the latest model out of China, a big hit in Europe. Always wary of sales pitches I chose not to believe her spiel, assuming it was likely some no-name knock off.

This from Reuters:

Korea also faces stiff competition to hang onto its edge in sophisticated manufacturing from China itself. In electronics, Haier and Hisense have developed wide product lines while automakers from BYD to Geely have started to attract attention overseas.

I guess she was telling the truth afterall. In fact South Korea is facing increased challenges from its rising neighbor on all fronts, including the local mainstay. According to a London-based researcher, Chinese shipbuilders outstripped their South Korean rivals in orders this year. British author Simon Winchester begins his book on walking across Korea with a look at the country’s shipyards nearly twenty years ago, predicting that the sight before his eyes spells a death knell for England’s own shipping industry. I wonder if local manufacturers are now thinking the same thing when they look west.

Trade wars

It’s not all doom and gloom though. China may (or may not) move to allow its currency to appreciate against the dollar, which would be welcome news to the U.S. and columnists over at the IHT. For South Korea, analysts say a stronger yuan would mean “more demand for Korean goods on Chinese markets.” China is South Korea’s largest trading partner by the way and has been since 2003.

The bulk of that trade, however, isn’t in consumer goods but rather in materials used to produce finished exports. Per the Reuters article cited above:

Geographic proximity, cultural affinity and its own recent experience of economic development provided South Korea with a platform to reach out to China. Its companies — notably, electronics makers such as LG Electronics and Samsung — adapted their business models to send intermediate goods to China for assembly before selling the finished products abroad.

Such manufacturing inputs account for roughly half of all of Chinese imports. So as China’s export factories revved up production, South Korea and Taiwan, the two countries most integrated in their supply chain, reaped huge dividends.

China rising

Oh what a feeling – Hyundai

Via Reuters comes an analysis of the success that South Korean automakers Hyundai and Kia have had in recent months, particulalry in comparison to their Japanese rivals.

Hyundai has also struck gold with big operations in India and China — two of the fastest-growing markets. And ingenious marketing such as an offer to allow buyers to return vehicles if they lost their jobs within a year helped Hyundai and Kia increase sales even in the sinking U.S. market.

The volume growth has come hand in hand with industry-defying profit improvements. In July-September, Hyundai made a record net profit of 979 billion won ($847 million) — equal to the combined earnings of Toyota and Honda Motor that quarter.

For the sake of full disclosure I’ve driven a Hyundai for the past several years, first in the US because it came cheap and now in Korea because, well… because I’m in Korea.

While I’m loathe to heap scorn on our first Hyundai, an  Elantra — simply because like a loyal canine that refused to quit  it took my family and I as far afield as Vancouver and New Mexico — the thing rattled and shook whenever we approached the speed limit. The model I drive now is a vast improvement, far more solid and better milage, but in the end I doubt either will outlast the 25 year old Toyota Camry my folks still drive with 200,000+ miles on it.

But anyway, some of the reasons cited in the Reuter’s piece for Hyundai’s success are the local currency’s relative weakness compared to the Japanese yen, which aid in boosting exports.

This then dovetails with the second reason, which has to do with Seoul’s free-for-all market policies that has led to “more than 40 free trade agreements (FTAs) with countries ranging from the United States to India. Japan has less than a third as many, almost all of them with the rest of Asia.”

What this means for Korea was spelled out in a recent report that warned of a too-heavy reliance on international trade.

South Korea’s dependence on overseas trade exceeded 90 percent of the national income last year for the first time, leaving the nation’s economy more vulnerable to fluctuations in global market conditions…

Comparable ratios for Japan stood at 31.6 percent, while those for India, Australia and Britain were 37.7 percent, 39.1 percent and 41.2 percent, respectively, suggesting that those countries have well-nurtured domestic markets…

Lingering uncertainty in the job market is a major source of concern for leaders in Seoul when it comes to the health of South Korea’s domestic market. While unemployment figures have been improving there’s concern that they could drop off again once a government-led job creation plan ends this month. According to Yonhap irregular employees make up some 35 percent of the nation’s workforce.

The latest figures on household income aren’t promising either, with average household income fallingand  for the second straight quarter with a family of two earning just under US$3000 per month.

From Af-Pak to Nork Nukes, Asia a minefield for Obama

Excellent piece in the New Yorker by Seymour Hersh on securing (or not) Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in the face of increasing attacks by the Taliban and radicalization of the nation’s military.

A senior Pakistani official who has close ties to Zardari exploded with anger during an interview when the subject turned to the American demands for more information about the arsenal… Today, he said, “you’d like control of our day-to-day deployment. But why should we give it to you? Even if there was a military coup d’état in Pakistan, no one is going to give up total control of our nuclear weapons. Never. Why are you not afraid of India’s nuclear weapons?” the official asked. “Because India is your friend, and the longtime policies of America and India converge. Between you and the Indians, you will fuck us in every way.”

Speaking of which, this gives a sense of the larger AF-Pak nightmare that Seoul recently agreed to become a part of and that will certainly be among the topics discussed when Obama visits Seoul next week. Others include a visit to Pyongyang by Washington’s point man on North Korea policy, Stephen Bosworth. Of that visit, Victor Cha offers an interesting take.

As per the Asia Times:

The point of the Bosworth mission, he indicated, without actually saying so, would be to fail. Or, as Cha put it, “Bosworth could go there and come back and say the North Koreans are not serious.” So take that, China. No longer could the Chinese be telling the Americans to at least talk to these people, and no longer could anyone anywhere accuse the US of not wanting to deal.

Seoul’s concern, of course, is being sidelined by any possible deal struck between the U.S. and North Korea, intrinsic to Kim Jong-il’s attempt to portray himself as “ruler of all Koreans before whom all others bow, as did the previous South Korean presidents, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun…”

And speaking of bowing before a higher power, with the first stop of Obama’s Asia tour in Japan a lot of attention has been paid to Tokyo’s desire for a more “equal” partnership with the U.S.

The second page of the Financial Times is dominated by a story on plans to relocate a U.S. Marine base on the southern island of Okinanwa, where “10 percent of the land is under U.S. control.” While Tokyo’s previous government under the LDP made the agreement, the country’s new leaderhsip under the DPJ is looking to either alter or scrap the plan alltogether.

Accompanying the piece is another on Tokyo’s announcement that it will provide some US$5 billion in reconstruction aid to Afghanistan, a move many say is aimed at quelling fears in Washington over Japan’s decision to end naval refueling in support of U.S.-led anti-terrorism operations in the Indian Ocean. The Afghan aid could also be meant as leverage in discussions over the base relocation.

(It’s ironic that Japan’s new leaders are looking more like the past liberal administrations in Seoul while Lee Myung-bak would fit right in with the old LDP.)

In an interview on the BBC yesterday, a Japanese official seemed hard pressed to explain how the country would ensure that the money did not disappear into the pockets of Kabul’s corrupt leaders. But anyway…

Peter Brown back over at the Asia Times does a much better job of summarizing what exactly Tokyo means when it says it wants a more “equal” partnership with the U.S. “without actually doing any damage to the security relationship that guarantees Japan’s survival in a dangerous neighborhood.” How dangerous?

“North Korean missile tests and China’s impressive missile modernization program showcased during the National Day celebrations on October 1 underscore the missile danger to Japan and the US.”

(…) In Taiwan, President Ma Ying-jeou has recently accused the US government of being too easily influenced by China as he declared that the US is stalling with respect to the planned sale to Taiwan of 66 F-16 fighter aircraft….

Certainly, North Korea does not appreciate the timing of new revelations in the Japanese media these past few days concerning the abductions of Japanese citizens by the North Koreans and the allegation that Kim Jong-il exercised command authority over North Korean abduction operations starting in the 1970s. When Kim met with prime minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2002, he denied any role in these operations.

This almost guarantees that Pyongyang’s volatility and confrontational stance will be ramping up over the coming days, especially when Obama’s trip to the region already lent itself to exploitation by the North Koreans. (This written before Tuesday’s naval clash.)

According to Brown, all of this noise adds some serious weight to the long standing alliance with ballistic missile defense at the core of the issue. While the U.S. needs its bases in Japan for deployment of its Aegis destroyers and for missile detection, Tokyo needs the missile umbrella provided by the U.S. The relationship could call for “unprecedented integration and information sharing,” which some could interpret as proof of Japan’s elevated status.

Anger and sadness punctuate Roh’s funeral

Friday’s headline in Seoul’s Kyunghyang Newspaper quotes former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung announcing that the nation’s democracy is regressing, as up to a million have gathered in the capital to mourn the death of his successor Roh Moo-hyun. Many blame the current leader.

The air is charged here as riot police have turned out in droves to contain the masses turning out for the late leader’s state funeral, the second highest ever to be given in South Korea. Enormous screens project the funeral proceedings for those unable to enter the grounds of the ancient Gyeongbok Palace, where the ceremony is being held.

A young man who like many gathered here wears a yellow ribbon around his neck in honor of Roh, points at the police phalanxes that line Jongno, a major boulevard leading past City Hall to the gates of the palace. “This is supposed to be a public funeral,” he says, “but obviously it isn’t.” Yellow was the color used during Roh’s 2002 presidential campaign.

An officer squatting in the shade of a nearby alley puts the number of police dispatched in the tens-of-thousands, his face a mixture of fatigue and anxiety at the hours ahead. Many say mourners have held back their anger out of respect for the ceremony but warn of clashes once it ends.

Banners flying above the crowds read “Rest in Peace” on one side, while on the other “Lee Myung-bak out!”

Inside the palace Prime Minster Han Seung-soo, who was turned back days earlier by crowds of Roh supporters while visiting the late leader’s rural residence, addresses a crowd of dignitaries and ordinary citizens. “We have gathered here today to bid goodbye to former President Roh Moo-hyun who spent his life fighting for human rights, democracy and the destruction of authoritarianism — a true ‘people’s president.’”

Meanwhile, an opposition lawmaker verbally assaulted President Lee as he approached to lay a flower upon Roh’s body. “You’re a political murderer,” shouted Baek Won-woo of the Democratic Party before being hauled out by security, according to Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

The succession of events that have transpired in recent days has been truly mind boggling, even for a nation long used to political and social crises. Minutes before the funeral commenced, reports emerged that Chinese fishing vessels off the peninsula’s west coast were fleeing the area in expectation of a possible military clash with North Korea

On the morning of Saturday, May 23, Roh, 62, who served as president from 2003 to 2008, leapt from a cliff above his rural home some 450 km southeast of Seoul. A number of questions surround the circumstances of his death, however, including conflicting statements by a security detail with Roh at the time of his death, suspicions that have only fueled a sense of insecurity and anger here.

As news of the tragedy spread, with citizens across the country turning out to express their grief and shock, North Korea conducted a nuclear test followed by several test-firings of short-range missiles. Then it announced it was scrapping an armistice agreement signed at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War after Seoul made public its decision to join a U.S. led anti-proliferation campaign largely known to target the North.

Yet despite the chill northerly winds, the gathering storm here seems focused more on Roh’s death and the responsibility born by the current Lee Myung-bak government. A wreath sent in Lee’s name to Bongha Village, where Roh had taken up farming after retiring from office, was destroyed by the late leader’s supporters.

Lee, who took office in February of 2008 from an embattled and at the time unpopular Roh, overturned many of his predecessor’s policies, including generous aid to the North. He has also presided over a string of controversies involving police crackdowns of public protests, starting with last summer’s anti-U.S. beef rallies and more recently the death of several squatters at the hands of a police swat team in January.

In the weeks leading to Roh’s death, state prosecutors had stepped up their investigation into allegations that Roh had received $6 million in bribes from a local businessman. The probe, which culminated in an unprecedented ten hour grilling of Roh, was widely perceived to be politically motivated by Lee’s government.

These and other incidents have fed into a growing sense of a more draconian style of leadership under Lee, who ironically fashioned himself after the country’s first military ruler Park Cheong-hee. Park helped transform South Korea from an East Asian backwater to a global economic powerhouse, though at the cost of political freedom.

Blix calls for engagement with North

Hans Blix, former head of the WMD inspection team in Iraq and chairman of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, says engagement with the North is the only way to convince the country that “a piece of paper” will guarantee its safety more so than a nuclear stockpile.

Perhaps a piece of paper could be made more attractive if it were signed by the great powers and combined with a peace treaty. Perhaps it would also be more credible if it were offered in the margin of the revival of international nuclear disarmament. While allowing civilian nuclear power and guaranteeing access to uranium fuel, it would have to comprehensively ban nuclear weapons, enrichment of uranium and reprocessing on the whole Korean peninsula[…]

There may be limits to the persuasive power of the Chinese government, but it is significant and there can be no doubt that Beijing has an enormous interest in using it. A nuclear-capable North Korea shooting missiles over Japan could push Tokyo in a direction that would sharply increase tensions with China.